Receive free UK immigration updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest UK immigration news every morning.
Law firms handling more than half of all legal aid immigration and asylum work in the UK have warned the government that a proposed 15 per cent rise in their hourly fees will fail to prevent a “catastrophic” breakdown in legal representation for asylum seekers.
Ministers put forward the increase last month to ensure there were enough lawyers willing to take on cases and to help clear the record backlog of 166,300 asylum cases that had built up by the end of 2022.
The pile-up is contributing to the £6mn a day that the government is spending on hotel accommodation for asylum seekers waiting for claims to be processed.
But in a letter to justice secretary Alex Chalk, seen by the Financial Times, 66 law firms said they would reduce work on asylum claims and decline all new work under the Illegal Migration Act passed by parliament last month unless the government improved its offer.
The firms said hourly fees for immigration and asylum work had not increased since 1996 and were insufficient to cover costs. Now £52 per hour in London and £47 per hour outside the capital, they added that fees were half what they would be had they risen in line with inflation over the years and should rise to at least £100 per hour.
“If these changes are not brought about quickly, we will be forced to continue to reduce the amount of controlled work that we take on and will be unable to take on work under the IMA,” the letter said, noting that 25,000 asylum seekers already in the UK lacked legal representation.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping the record numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats one of his five “people’s priorities” ahead of a general election expected next year. As part of that commitment, he has pledged to eliminate the backlog in asylum claims by the end of 2023.
But the Home Office has struggled to get his policies off the ground amid legal challenges, delays in recruiting and retaining asylum caseworkers and continuing high numbers of people arriving in the UK across the Channel, with a surge expected by the UK border force this month.
The lawyers wrote that the Illegal Migration Act, which is the centrepiece of Sunak’s immigration policy, “throws oil on a legal aid system already on fire”. The legislation bans almost anyone arriving in the UK without prior permission from claiming asylum and places a legal onus on the Home Office to detain and remove such people.
However, each asylum seeker is entitled to legal representation and can, for example as victims of torture or modern slavery, bring emergency challenges to their removal under the act.
Jeremy Bloom, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis, which helped co-ordinate the letter, said the civil legal aid system had “been at breaking point for years”.
“Unless the government acts decisively . . . the impact will be felt by asylum seekers who may be detained, removed from the UK . . . without an opportunity to have their case heard and without being able to access legal advice and representation,” he said.
Bloom added that this would put the UK in potential breach of the law and lay the government open to costly litigation.
The government said: “We are consulting with providers to make sure the sector can meet increased demand for legal advice, and that cases can be resolved swiftly and fairly, to ensure we are able to break the business model of the smuggling gangs and stop the boats.”